First World Problems

One always speaks badly when one has nothing to say.

—Voltaire

First World problems are things that bother people from wealthy countries that most Third Worlders would consider ridiculous. For instance, if you’ve been acting out over having to listen to seven Pandora advertisements per hour, then you’re responding to a First World problem. If, in a resentful fit, you just unfriended someone on Facebook because she didn’t pay enough attention to the posts you worked so hard to find, then your time and energy were wasted on a counterproductive First World distraction. The list is endless, to include venting over vacation inconveniences, slow Internet service, and delayed plane flights.

The idea of First World problems is even an Internet meme. Here’s one:

 

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Here’s another:

 

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And another:

 

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First World problems go hand in hand with unwarranted self-importance, which has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts with the advent of the Internet. Up until the mid ‘90s, the biggest audience a lonely working stiff might manage was a few people sitting at the bar. The bartender as host gave everyone booze, hot wings, and conversation, for a price. Now, some social media site like Facebook is the host, thumbs-ups (or likes) have replaced booze and hot wings, and the same working stiff can have as many real and imaginary friends as he wants for a comparatively modest price.

And what do many choose to do with this newfound technological prowess? Complain, of course. In a different era, Andy Rooney, the godfather of all First World complainers, had to rely on a syndicated column and 60 Minutes to spread his message. Now, with the infrastructure for digital data in place, anyone can find an audience by paying a few minor bills and going online. It’s just that easy.

Of the equation just mentioned (unwarranted self-importance + broad social media platform + unhappiness over trivial issues = burgeoning First World problem phenomenon), the issue of unhappiness deserves the most attention. I’ll touch on this in a moment, but to first concede a point, our culture really has grown maddeningly complicated. For some, the obsession with First World problems serves as a coping mechanism. As complex social animals, humans seek ways to create community, and since First World problems seem real enough to their victims, why not share them in an effort to relieve tension? At least this is what some people believe. Others will even tell you that worrying about the world’s more serious problems ruins the quality of their lives, and life is short, no doubt.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that First World problems aren’t as real or significant as Third World nightmares. Cholera, genocide, and stunted growth from malnutrition are serious problems. They’re measurable physical phenomena. Lamenting to everyone within earshot that a tedious vacation was a “soul-crushing defeat” is a hyperbolic description of a transient psychological invention. Who really cares about that vacation, and why should they? When people assume that by sharing superficial personal problems they relieve anxiety and tension, they are in fact burdening someone else without solving the problem. They’re diminishing the audience without improving their own personal condition.

If nothing else, First World problems serve as a reference frame for clearer awareness. All that claims reverence risks ridicule, as the memes above prove. At this point in human history, the world’s most severe problems are everyone’s problems, whether we like it or not. The fact that 7.3 billion people share a planet of diminishing resources in an era of economic interdependence says enough about our current condition.

Granted, some might consider this discussion a First World complaint since it doesn’t offer a convenient way forward. Regularly channeling upset into solution-based thinking would be nice, but doing so requires a degree of self-reflection that not everyone is willing to exercise. People will whine about frivolous issues no matter what. Most of us do. It’s human nature.

Nevertheless, shining a light on what we’ve become does make a difference in how we perceive our environment and, consequently, how we might choose to behave. America’s value system has changed with the nature of its work. The service sector accounts for over 80% of the American economy. We’re consumers more than producers now, which means marketers teach their prey from childhood that they’re special and deserve nothing but the best, even when this isn’t true. Commercials feature predictable archetypes: the smug woman nursing the perfect cup of coffee and gazing out the window; the formerly distraught but now relieved couple sleeping blissfully on a mattress fit for British royalty; the twentysomething vacationer reclining in a beach chair and cuddling with his beer on some sunny coastline—and they all wear mysterious grins, as if they’ve unriddled some enigma that no one else will ever understand.

Although production and consumption are intimately related, they differ greatly. Production is more closely related to invention, which inspires a sense of accomplishment. Invention tells us we can act in unique, meaningful ways. It can contribute valuable additions to the world around us. Of greatest importance, it teaches us how to engage our curiosity as we manage a sustained critical effort. Invention is the complete works of Shakespeare. It’s a walk on the Moon. It’s that visionary project you promised yourself you would finish.

Consumption does little or none of this since it’s tied to limbic system stimuli relating to satiation and pleasure. Those obsessed with consumer-driven desires are different animals. They behave unmindfully. By extension, this means that American society has, to a great extent, become self-absorbed and unmindful, which explains the white noise associated with First World problems. Glorifying casual privileges due to cultural conditioning and then complaining bitterly over incidental slights along the way makes everyone’s life more difficult, and for no sensible reason.

Photo By: Roy Lichtenstein